Big in Pakistan: Malala Yousafzai Conspiracy Theories

She's an international icon for her girls-rights activism, but what's popular opinion make of her back home?
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A protester carries a portrait of Yousufzai during a candlelight vigil by a women's group in Hong Kong, October 2012. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

After Malala Yousafzai, the 15-year-old advocate for girls' education in Pakistan, was shot in the head by the Pakistani Taliban last October while riding home on a school bus, she almost instantly became a global icon -- and remarkably, remains one.

A few small data points: Nearly every time we posted a story about Malala on TheAtlantic.com in the weeks and months after the assassination attempt on her, there was unusually strong traction for the story by way of Google News, showing massive reader interest from around the world. "I am Malala" remains a widely recognized slogan of international solidarity. And there are less conspicuous signs of Malala's enduring global influence than the fact that she was asked to speak remotely to the opening session of this year's Aspen Ideas Festival.

Among the reasons why Malala's story is so striking is the optic it's given the world into the extent of radicalization in extreme Islamist segments of Pakistani society. But how has that story been perceived in Pakistani society more broadly? According to Shiza Shahid, who supported Malala's work in Pakistan for five years, and who spoke at the Aspen Ideas Festival this morning, conspiracy theories have come to play a major role:

In Pakistan, there was a moment when you saw people coming out on the streets, and it was the first time that people named the Taliban and said, "I am Malala. I am not the Taliban." And you even saw right-wing journalists getting up and saying, "This is unacceptable."

But it was a very, very fleeting moment; and very soon the narrative started to come:

"Well, if the West loves her so much, she must be a CIA agent."

"Well, you know, now that her father is going around speaking about peace in the U.S., he must have planned this."

Or:

"You know, she was never really shot; this is all a conspiracy."

It became very prevalent, and I don't think it would be far-fetched to say that the majority of Pakistanis now believe that Malala is a conspiracy. And I think the tragedy of the story is that this is a girl who gave her heart and soul, her life, to Pakistan, still continues to do so, is loved everywhere, and will continue to fight for girls in Pakistan.

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J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia. … Also: jjgould.com.

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